By Cora Alley
When I was a “groovy” teen in the 1960s, I used to save up every cent I could beg, borrow, or earn to buy the latest singles that came out on those saucer-sized 45 rpm records. I would gingerly lift the ebony disc out of its protective paper sleeve and place it on the turntable on my record player that looked like a square hatbox with a handle. After listening to my treasured song over and over until cries of protest came from every corner of the house, I would pick the record up and carefully reinsert it into its paper holder.
Then it usually dawned on me that the record had a flip side. Sure enough, there was another song on the backside of the record by the very same group. My curiosity always got the best of me, and I had to play the flip holder.
Without fail, however, the song on the flip side was what they call a “throwaway” in the music industry. Although performed by the same group, it lacked the zing of the hit. The two songs were pressed on the same vinyl, but they were canyons apart in quality.
Life Is Full of Flip Sides
Life can be like that, too. Almost every experience we have, from the cradle to the grave, has a flip side. In the midst of even the most joyous events, the somber notes of the flip side can be too close for comfort. We celebrate our child’s first steps, then wake up to the reality that his ability to escape has just increased a hundredfold. We celebrate a new job, then strategize ways to meet new expectations. We celebrate having a new house, then struggle to carry the weight of the mortgage. We celebrate the emancipation of our children, then find ways to ease the pain of loneliness.
I have heard the somber flip side played faithfully at almost every one of life’s celebrations. That’s just the way life is, but that is not the way the Christian life is. In Christianity, both sides of the record play a hit single. How do I know this? I have heard both sides of the record. I have stood on the mountaintops, surrounded by accolades and achievements, and I have walked through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Which experiences were spiritual “hits”? They both were; the tunes were different, but the quality of each song was rich and unique.
When I look back through the writers of the Old Testament, the one who seems to understand this best is Solomon. He had his share of parties, and I’m sure each one was a hit, but Ecclesiastes (the book for which he is best known) is anything but a party manual! It is the last thing someone would read to lighten the mood. But his advice about what appears to be life’s flip side has proven to be a hit for all who take the time to discover the wisdom of Israel’s wisest teacher:
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 3).
How can a sad face be good for the heart? You’ve heard it said, “A frown is just a smile, turned upside down.” It’s more than that! A frown indicates you are experiencing life’s flip side. Shock, sadness, loneliness, pain; all of these emotions awaken us to another of life’s melodies.
C.S. Lewis says it well in his book, The Problem of Pain:
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our joys, but shouts to us in our pains. . . . “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Roused by Pain
I was roused by the megaphone of pain one day in early August. My doctor called, and in an emotionless tone (as though he were announcing the weather report) he said, “You have cancer. It is malignant melanoma. We’ll need to schedule surgery at once.”
If you’ve ever been on one of those roller coasters that spins you completely upside down until the whole world looks different, you’ll know how I felt. Cancer! Me? Are you kidding? I have too much to do! I don’t have time to die!
My husband, Steve, got the same news six months later when his doctor came into his hospital room to say, “You have prostate cancer; we’ll have to schedule surgery right away.” The would-be-routine prostate biopsy had ruptured Steve’s colon, and he had almost died of toxic poisoning, so the news of his cancer was the cherry on an all-too-melted sundae.
My surgery took place without incident. One lymph node and a fist full of flesh was removed from my thigh, and I was sent home with a stern, “stay out of the sun” warning. Steve’s surgery, on the other hand, was complicated by six blood clots, a pulmonary embolism, internal bleeding, five months in the hospital, and five near-death experiences.
The song on the flip side played over and over, loud and clear, for more than a year in the Alley household. We did everything we were supposed to do when the bad news came crashing in. We prayed like we had never prayed before; everyone we knew prayed for us. We went to the elders of the church, and they prayed for God to spare our lives.
In the quiet aftermath of each one of our initial reactions, we began to discern the tune that was really playing. We listened to words of the song that neither one of us would have ever saved up to buy. It went something like this:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4).
Joy? Where was the joy in this? Slowly the fog of our pain lifted and we began to see the beauty of the haunting melody that was playing in our lives. We discovered a new depth to our prayer lives that made former prayers seem as shallow as a toddler’s wading pool.
We became increasingly aware that our witnessing opportunities had exploded. An entire host of medical professionals, as well as our colleagues, students, family, and friends, were watching us. If this truly was our time to meet Jesus, we were resolved that everyone we met would have the same hope.
We began to realize that, in an age of “consumer Christianity,” we had the privilege of modeling what it meant to love God without condition. We understood, for the first time, that Christians have “life assurance” not “life insurance.” Our attitude toward each new day changed. Every minute, every ray of sunshine, every scented breeze is a gift from God. Our friends became the arms and legs of God as they formed a parade marching “through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) right behind us.
We looked at each other differently. Our love was translated into the simplest kindnesses, and one glance could exchange volumes of emotions. We no longer speed down life’s superhighway; instead, we saunter along its footpath.
Would I call life’s flip side a throwaway? Absolutely not! After all, both sides of the record are recorded by the same artist.
Cora Alley is a professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, California.